I’d like to dovetail on my previous post about executive functioning and its impact on the development of social-cognitive skills and pragmatic language. In its role as the brain’s “secretary,” executive functioning helps to regulate an individual’s ability to map/plan a conversation and then to follow that plan. This isn’t to say that every conversation should be planned out ahead of time-that would be completely crazy and impractical, as conversations are organic, dynamic, and sometimes take unpredictable turns based upon the participants’ perspectives. What I mean by a conversational map is some kind of mental/visual representation of the essential components of a conversation. These maps are what help us to recognize the main topic of the conversation, ask relevant questions that maintain the conversation and include each member, and make relevant comments that support the main topic.
Conversational maps take many forms: I have seen everything from a conversation umbrella to a conversation house. I strongly believe that therapy strategies should be as individualized as possible, so whatever visual schema works for a particular student, alrighty! Use it! I merely want to offer another way to conceptualize the general map of a conversation. I led a group of students with social-cognitive and pragmatic language challenges in a summer wrap-up camp last week at The Ely Center in Newton, MA. During one particular discussion about building skills to support social success with old and new classmates, I introduced the idea of the Conversation Tree. Like an umbrella, a house, or even a flowchart, this is another way you can help kids to visualize the basic components of a conversation!
One application of the Conversation Tree is to literally present the necessary components of a conversation: the main topic/main idea, the sub-topics that help to maintain the conversation, and the details that develop the sub-topics and connect them back to either the main topic or other sub-topics. I highly recommend introducing the Conversation Tree in a group therapy context, since conversations tend to develop more with peers than in 1:1 settings with a child and a therapist. Here are the steps for building a Conversation Tree during your next session:
1. Choose a main topic/main idea. This will be the trunk of the tree. In other words, this main topic is what will support the rest of the tree/conversation. Clients may need to be regularly reminded to do a self-check through the self-talk skills discussed in my last post: “Am I connecting my thoughts with the trunk topic, or am I building another tree altogether?” It’s important to redirect kids when they jump to a new conversation tree and help them find a way to connect their thoughts with the trunk topic.
2. Once you have your trunk topic determined, you’ll need to add some sub-topic branches. Work with the kids in your group to decide what kinds of sub-topics relate to your main trunk topic. Another way to approach this is to add a sub-topic branch each time the conversation moves in a new direction (and addresses a new subtopic). This method involves building your tree simultaneously with the conversation (which relates more to self-monitoring in a conversation than mapping ahead of time-totally ok and awesome!).
3. If you were to stop a conversation after only introducing a main topic and the sub-topics, it would feel sparse and bare…much like the tree above. In order to make the conversation flow and feel cohesive and connected, you need details! These get added as leaves on each sub-topic branch. The details help to connect the branch sub-topics to the main trunk topic and also to connect branch sub-topics to one another. Leaves represent clients’ individual experiences around each sub-topic. You could even give each student a different colored leaf to add to each sub-topic branch to represent their talk-time within each sub-topic!
Once you’ve fully mapped the conversation, the tree might look something like this:
As I stated above, there are numerous applications for the Conversation Tree as a language therapy tool. Another way to use the tree idea is to visualize the use of Wh-Questions as a means of maintaining conversations, showing interest in a conversation, and being an active, on-topic participant in a conversation. You can use the same tree template, but instead of branches representing the sub-topics, they can each represent a Wh-Question. Each time a client asks a relevant Wh-Question, he/she gets to add a leaf to that branch (I cut leaves out of green sticky notes so they would automatically stick to my paper). The goal can be to fill up each branch with a variety of on-topic questions. You can also use this as a fun way to practice embedding the “wh” word into the question rather than always starting with it (e.g., rather than asking “When did you go to New Hampshire?” you could ask “Did you go to New Hampshire when the leaves were changing?”).
Executive functioning impairments are not easy to assess, quantify, or treat. Often, we have the most success targeting those deficits within the context of other social-cognition and/or language goals. Providing clients with a visual support to conceptualize these challenging planning/mapping processes can be an invaluable tool when addressing executive functioning deficits, and I look forward to hearing how this activity (and any others you’d like to share) are working to address clients’ needs within this realm!